FINE (“THE END”): La Dolce Vita and the Burst into Technicolor

Believe me, the more wretched life is better than a sheltered existence in an organized society where everything is anticipated and perfect.


This is Italy,

and this is not Italy: together

the prehistory and history

that are in her may cohabit, if

light is the fruit of a dark seed.


Pasolini’s visionary words in “Humble Italy” (“L’umile Italia”) describe the future of the nation. He writes about a swallow’s nostalgic farewell to a nation of humble people, to a memory of ancient songs no longer sung, to a society on the verge of a capitalist forgetfulness of the dead.3 The potential of photography to lie dormant, in the form of negatives, hidden prints, and forgotten periodicals, helps conserve the dead as though they were still alive. However, Pasolini warns that Italy’s “history” and “prehistory” can only cohabit in the unlikely and paradoxical case that “light is the fruit of a dark seed.” Some of the photographs seen in this book reveal a world that has tended not to be the focus in the histories of Italy: a world of peasant devotion, gypsies, and street life. Looking at over forty years of humanist photography, during which Italy underwent a radical political shift, from Fascism to democracy, I researched the work of circa 200 photographers (Italian and foreign) and over 100 periodicals in around fifty institutions, libraries, archives, galleries, and private collections to write this book (not all of which I could cover). The scale of the material available is disproportionate to the currently available scholarship. Like the lines from Pasolini’s poem, the vast quantity of photographs consulted were part of Italy’s “prehistory,” an archaeological mass of data yet to be uncovered and analyzed. Many of the crucial information gaps I came across during my visual analysis of photographs were filled only due to unexpected conversations with elderly Italians who could remember the reasons for peculiar customs, ways of behaving, or religious and political beliefs. Riccardo De Antonis, who is the photographer Pasquale De Antonis’ son, described certain feast days in the Abruzzi seen in Chapter 1, providing me with important details that helped me decipher the photographs.

The fact that a number of significant amateur photographers, like Piergiorgio Branzi, Tranquillo Casiraghi, or Paolo Di Paolo, would abandon photography in the early to mid-1960s, with some claiming it was dead, remains a sign of the fairly sudden shift of interest away from humanist photography. Federico Fellini heralded this sea change in visual and social culture in La Dolce Vita (1960), which can be considered an iconic cultural monument that marks the end of an era. The hero Marcello’s existentialist, purposeless existence is disturbed by the invasive presence of the camera in the excitable form of Paparazzo, famously inspired by the Roman photojournalist Tazio Secchiaroli. The intrusiveness of the camera leaves the rich and famous nowhere to hide, their lives always on the verge of being exposed and betrayed by a voyeur. Fellini’s ultimately conservative message was that the changes affecting Italian society, symbolized by the death of neorealismo, were taking place at the cost of the nation’s soul. A thinly veiled anti-Americanism underlies the film, shot in black and white, highlighting a sense of irony, loss, and melancholy.

And yet, the decade that La Dolce Vita introduced saw the dawn of color with the widespread use of Technicolor, creating a fresh, uplifting, and optimistic paradigm shift. Humanist photography retained its sobriety through the use of black-and-white photographs. These were considered to convey a greater sense of art and authenticity than color photographs, which were associated with commercial activities, namely the film and advertising industries, and seen as fundamentally artificial. It aimed to represent social concerns, brandishing its authenticity in opposition to the falsehoods spread by Fascist visual culture. From Casiraghi to Colombo, many of the photographers who wrote in the 1950s declared their faith in photography’s capacity to represent reality and therefore truth, and its potential to lead to social reform. Some saw photography as having the power to engender a utopian psychological renewal of what was perceived as an obsolete Italian mentality. As Julian Stallabrass reminds us, it is easy to retrospectively discount the “beliefs of those individuals involved—including some who were committed to overthrowing capitalism.”4 The medium’s capacity to produce social transformation animated the global drive behind humanist photography, particularly in the 1950s. A number of the photographers and exhibition organizers studied, such as Alberto Lattuada, Edward Steichen, Luigi Crocenzi, or Karl Pawek, would express their belief in photography’s emotional power to reveal a unity among people.

Sociologist Rogers Brubaker suggests that the terms “connectedness,” “commonality,” and “groupness” are ideally suited to enable a grasp of what is meant by “identity” and to strip the term of ambiguity. Similarly, Benedict Anderson proposed considering identity through the lens of a “deep horizontal comradeship.”5 Considering the medium of photography’s historical connection to nationalism and identity, its use to define Italy and Italians underlies many of the publication efforts described in this book: from Cesare Zavattini’s unrealized Italia Mia to Luigi Crocenzi’s Storie Italiane and Carlo Levi’s Nostro Sud. These were all failed projects, symbolizing a utopian impulse to want to portray or capture a national sentiment, the confusing elusive sentiment that all Italians have been struggling with since 1861. The pervasive sense of frustration that I found in many critical accounts of Italian photography, both pre- and postwar, reveals that the idea of a national photography still remains a concept in which people seek to believe. In fact, as an apt and somewhat extreme “deconclusion,” it might be possible to say that, upon observation, none of the aspects studied in this book really exist: the idea of “Italian photography” is hard to define, the concept of “humanist photography” remains ambiguous in its fundamental message, “Fascism” refers to a culturally complex period in which certain “critical Fascists,” like Giuseppe Pagano, Curzio Malaparte, Leo Longanesi, or Federigo Valli, can be considered to have embraced a humanist photographic style, and the “Cold War” was an ideological melting pot. However such a “deconclusion” would defeat the purpose of a valid research as well as the continued efforts by strong scholars to conduct research on Italian photography. Furthermore, it would invalidate a particular curatorial angle that has emerged in the last decades best summarized by Giovanna Calvenzi’s popular exhibitions Italia. Ritratto di un paese in sessant’anni di fotografia (2008) and Italia Inside Out (2015), which aimed to connect a national photographic production with the idea of Italianicity. Their success, in spite of the fact that nationalism and national identity tend to be topics that scholarship treats with suspicion, is a sign that the notion of a national photography is a concept that continues to bear a fascination for many, both Italian and foreign.

Because the Italian photographic world is a peculiar one, full of creativity and diversity and yet hugely fractured, ideologically, geographically, and to a large extent, culturally, it is not an easy one to cover. I hope that in my attempt to do so I may have helped it a little toward acquiring its rightful position in the history of humanist photography, which so far has been dominated by the American and French photographic cultures. Their canonization in this genre came as a result of exhibitions such as The Family of Man exhibition and iconic photographs such as Doisneau’s Kiss at the Hotel de Ville (c. 1950). A large number of French photographers, like Edouard Boubat and Henri Cartier-Bresson, featured in Steichen’s exhibition, promoting an exoticized “Frenchness” and joie de vivre and a Bressonian “decisive moment,” which have since come to express the humanist photographic appeal. Photographs of pensive children, laughing couples on the beach, or domestic intimacy have formed a collective imagination of the genre and its style. The concept of family, as elucidated in the title of Steichen’s exhibition, was seen as a paradigm of safety and security after the end of the Second World War. Eugene W. Smith reverted to photographing his own children after suffering shrapnel wounds on one of his photojournalistic expeditions with the US Army in 1944. The Walk to Paradise Garden, mentioned in Chapter 4, was the first photograph he took after two years spent recovering in hospital under the impression he may never be able to photograph again. He was determined to capture a “gentle moment of spirited purity” to contrast with the depravity of war he had just witnessed.

The urgency felt by certain photographers to capture this new world in which humanist ideals could be interpreted within seemingly universal emotions and concepts like renewal, love, friendship, tenderness, and solidarity was historicized in a monocultural format, ossifying the genre into a particular set of dominant ideas. The secular tendency in photographic scholarship, as well as the institutional bias toward a photographic culture confined to the North Atlantic area, has meant that humanist photography has not been allowed a more nuanced political interpretation; it is argued here that a history of Italian humanist photography would make room for such an interpretation. Due to Italy’s precarious political balancing act between Communist and Catholic belief systems during the Cold War as well as its complicated history under Fascism, the photographers working during this time produced a body of work that opens up the discourse of humanist photography to the otherwise sidelined aspects of the genre: spiritual, emotional, and ideological ambiguities expressed in the way photographers, or those publishing the work, may have had more disdain than fraternal love for their subjects despite often espousing ostensibly charitable or antiélite ideologies.

Throughout the chapters of this book, humanist photography is revealed in its paradoxical nature, its capacity to disguise itself as religiously affiliated, as apolitical or as strongly engagé, as artistic, photojournalistic or “neorealist,” connecting with the power of pathos, but also with forms of schadenfreude. As Thierry De Duve argues with regard to humanism and photography, “Perhaps humanism’s greatest philosophical inconsistency is to presume that inhuman behavior excludes some humans from humanity. . . . No one can be excluded from humanity: the torturers are as human as the victims.”6 By exploring the presence of religion in left-wing contexts, the capacity of the humanist genre to contain the ideologically and emotionally contradictory aspects of Italian photography from this politically charged period is revealed. The uncertain and changing philosophical and ideological terrains in which the photographs lie speaks of the genre’s inherent rootlessness and ambiguous attitude toward faith, just as Fellini opens his film with a sculpture of Christ being helicoptered over a modernist Rome in La Dolce Vita: the religious figure is there, and yet permeated with a sense of sacrilege. In the wake of post-Fascist political engagement, a desultory era is dawning, in which photography and the cult of celebrity feature as powerful symbols of change.

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